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Trip Reports, Campsite Reviews & More

Trip Reports, Campsites & More

Gear Review

backcountry custom canoes Brookie solo canoe

Back in 2018, Jon, the owner and builder at Backcountry Custom Canoes, lent me his own solo boat to paddle for an early spring trip. The route was on the tougher side, a predominately low maintenance loop down through Clover and Tarn Lakes, complete with narrow creeks, long portages and a football field sized beaver meadow that was auditioning for the role of quicksand in the next Jumanji movie. Jon’s boat, a 15 foot Brookie, was a Godsend on that trip. It was light on the portages, maneuverable on the creeks and relatively quick on the open water. I finished that trip thinking that, at some point, I wouldn’t mind having a Brookie of my own.

“Some point” came in the Summer of 2021. Jon, like every other canoe builder through 2020 and 2021, had seen a huge spike in demand thanks to the pandemic. I got my boat just in time for a four day solo from Rain Lake to Canoe Lake. This ended up being a nice shakedown trip as the route I followed threw a little bit of everything at me. Longer portages? The low maintenance p2120 from Islet to Cranebill Lake says hi. Lakes of every size? There’s everything from Wee Lake (which lives up to its name) to Canoe Lake (which is about 4 KM tip to tail and probably half as wide). &#(*%) Creeks? Potter Creek is what you’d get if you asked someone to design a creek with all the typical minor creek-related annoyances they could think of.

I’m not going to rehash that trip in full here, (but here’s the trip report if you’re interested), but there are certain stretches that were illustrative of the Brookie’s features (and bugs).

I’ll start with the portages, because that’s why I wanted a lightweight solo boat in the first place. I have done a fair bit of solo tripping, and plan on doing a fair bit more before I hang up the paddles. The one thing that’s always on my mind when it comes to planning a solo route is portaging. I hate double carrying. It adds a ton of time to the day and it feels like a momentum killer every single time. That said, I like my back, and one of the best ways I can think of to stop my back from liking me is to load myself up like a pack mule and try to haul too much across a portage in an attempt to save time. The Brookie was supposed to help with this problem. Weighing in at just under 30 lbs, the boat was more than light enough that I could comfortably carry both it and my pack without straining myself. So, portage problem solved, right?

Not quite. 

A picture of a man, a paddle and a canoe in front of Rain Lake
Eyes closed, ready to go!

The problem I ran into is that, while I could certainly manage the weight of all my gear combined, I couldn’t pack it in a way that let me carry a canoe and a pack at the same time. One of the things about carrying the Brookie that is very different from carrying a tandem boat is that you use the Brookie’s only seat as part of your carrying bar. In other words, the seat (or removable yoke attached to the seat, which is what I had) rests on your shoulders. This means that the top of your backpack has to be even with, or maybe even slightly below, the top of your shoulders so that it doesn’t push up on the seat and force the bow end down. For the life of me, I could not figure out how to get my bag packed to avoid this issue. After a few packs and repacks I gave in and double carried the route, adding about 25 KM of extra portage distance.

That wasn’t ideal. 

On the plus side, double carrying meant that each leg of a portage was quick and easy. On the negative side, well, 25 unplanned for kilometers is a lot of kilometers.

I should note that I’m not blaming the Brookie here. I should have been able to figure out a way to pack so that I could single carry properly (and, in fact, I did figure out a way to do this about five minutes after finishing the trip), but it is an important thing to keep in mind if you’re going from portaging a tandem boat to a solo boat. 

Packing issues aside, the Brookie was awesome on the portages. It’s light enough that you can pick it up with one hand. Jon made a removable yoke that fits comfortably on my shoulders and, now that I’ve figured out my packing strategy, single carrying is a much more comfortable experience. 

Portages are only half the battle though. Ideally you’re going to spend a bunch of time with the canoe in the water, not on your shoulders. Here I’ve found both positives and negatives with the Brookie.

On the positive side, I’ve found the Brookie to be a stable paddle. In calm water it handles really nicely and you can get up a decent pace if you’re paddling consistently (it does start to swing left or right almost the second you stop paddling, which can be a frustration if you’re trying to put your paddle down to take a picture or grab a sip of water).

It’s a bit more of a mixed result in windier conditions. That same Rain to Canoe Lake trip ended with a pretty fierce headwind on Canoe Lake. The waves were high and the wind was blowing directly in my face as I headed back to the access point. At no point did it feel like the boat was unbalanced. It handled the waves well and felt stable even in the worst of the wind. That said, being such a light boat meant that while everything felt stable enough, if I let the boat slip even slightly out of facing directly into the wind, it would get pushed around in a way that other boats I’ve paddled in tough winds do not. Again, I wouldn’t say this is a design flaw with the boat itself, just something to keep in mind when looking at any ultralight boat.

I think my favourite feature of the Brookie (apart from the weight) is the durability of the material. Brookies are skin on frame boats. Jon stretches a layer of ballistic nylon over a latticework of narrow ribs and ties it all together with lashing. The end result is a gorgeous looking boat that resembles tissue paper and is tough as nails. I’ve paddled my Brookie down a few creeks (and rivers that should be creeks), including Potter Creek on that Rain to Canoe trip and the Nipissing River, Loontail Creek and Latour Creek this past summer. On each of these I’ve rammed the boat into, over and through any number of creek rocks, alder branches, logs , beaver dams and whatever other of nature’s versions of a spiked tire belt Algonquin wants to throw at you. I’ve hit edges that would put a hole in most materials. I’ve dragged the boat across rock gardens and deadfalls. I once tripped on a portage and dropped the boat directly onto a nearby, and very pointy, rock. Each and every time the Brookie has bounced off whatever obstacle I’ve rammed it into and come out laughing. For me, this durability is a great feature. I’m not always the most observant paddler when it comes to underwater obstructions, and knowing that I can smack into a rock or 30 without worrying about putting a hole in my boat is a huge benefit. (The only other point I’ll make where creeks are concerned is that being 15 feet long makes the Brookie much easier to navigate through the twists and turns of particularly narrow waterways).

All in all, I’m happy with my Brookie. My main complaint is that it stops tracking as soon as you stop paddling and it’s not going to win you any speed records. Apart from that, it’s a nice, durable, lightweight boat that handles well on portages and well enough on the water (and is pretty nice to look at as well!).

Gear reviews are featured in each issue of The Thunderbox. If you want to get my up to date thoughts on various pieces of gear, feel free to add your email in the box below. You’ll receive the monthly Thunderbox update and trip reports as they are published.

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